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Virginia’s court-appointed attorneys don’t come cheap

Courtesy - Ekaterina Bolovtsova, Pexels
Courtesy - Ekaterina Bolovtsova, Pexels

When Shakil Ali was released from prison in 2018, he faced a bill of more than $3,000 in court fees — roughly one-third of which was aimed at paying for his court-appointed attorney. The fees almost landed him back in jail until he and his social network scraped together the money.

Ali’s case is part of a broader system in Virginia where low-income people who are convicted of or plead guilty to a crime must pay back court-appointed attorney fees. In some cases, the fees accumulate even if a defendant wins a dismissal of the case.

This story was reported and written by VPM News

Ali’s now part of an effort led by the  Legal Aid Justice Center to convince state lawmakers to undo the system in this year’s special session.

“The court costs and fines is about freedom, because you can go back to prison if you don't pay them,” Ali said in an interview.

The 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to an attorney. It may be best known as a portion of the Miranda warning read to suspects of crimes: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”

But Ali, who now assists previously incarcerated people as lead supervisor at the  Help Me Help You Foundation, said most of his clients don’t realize that this service isn’t free in Virginia.

The costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the severity of the charge. There’s no way to challenge the cost so they often pile up, accruing interest and resulting in more court hearings and sometimes landing people back behind bars, according to  an analysis from the LAJC.

In a year when state funds are expected to be tight, cost could emerge as one objection to LAJC’s push to scrap the charges. The state collected an average of around $13 million a year from attorney fees over the last four years, according to LAJC’s analysis. It argues that sum is relatively insignificant for the state, but not for the people paying the fees.

The fees vary across jurisdictions. LAJC’s analysis found lower-income cities and counties — and ones with larger nonwhite populations — were more likely to assess higher fees on average.

Pat Levy-Lavelle, a senior intake attorney with LAJC, said the state would accrue both fiscal and societal benefits from not charging the fees. He argued the fees create an economic drag on returning citizens and their families that hinders their ability to re-enter society.

“Probation is sometimes extended, people lose out on deferred dispositions, sometimes people are hauled back into court to explain themselves,” Levy-Lavelle said. “All of that is problematic for a Virginia that believes in public safety, second chances and a better future for all of its citizens.”

LAJC is in the process of working with General Assembly lawmakers, including Del. Cia Price (D–Newport News) and incoming state Sen. Lashrecse Aird (D–Henrico), to draft legislation on the topic. Virginia lawmakers are set to begin this year’s session on Jan. 10.